Review: “Matilda the Musical” in Napa

Author Roald Dahl’s children’s stories usually feature an exceptional child living in an unexceptional world of abusive adults and oppressive institutions. Whether it’s James traveling in a giant peach or Charlie touring a chocolate factory, the young protagonists usually triumph with the help of a loving grown-up.

That formula is at work again in Matilda the Musical, an adaptation of Dahl’s 1988 novel by Dennis Kelly with music and lyrics by Tim Minchin.  A co-production of Napa’s Cafeteria Kids Theater and the Napa Valley College Theater Arts program, it’s running through Nov. 17 at the College’s Performing Arts Center.

Michael Conte as Miss Trunchbull

It makes sense that the two entities would join forces as it’s a humungous show with a cast of 55 performers – ages 7 and up – comprised of kids, college-age students and an adult guest artist. Several of the main roles are double-cast. ‘Cast A’ was on stage at the performance I attended.

Matilda (Sophia Grace Passaris) is the neglected daughter of a shallow competitive ballroom dancer (Courtney South) and an unscrupulous used-car salesman (Francisco Gutierrez). They mock Matilda’s intellect and encourage her to watch more television. She finds her escape in books and in trips to the library where Matilda regales the librarian (Ashley Zaragoza) with her original stories. She also finds some relief in occasionally being naughty.

Matilda’s days are spent at Crunchem Hall. The school, whose motto is “Bambinatum est Magitum,” or “Children are Maggots”, is run by the tyrannical Miss Agatha Trunchbull (an imposing Michael Conte in a role traditionally cast with a male). Matilda’s teacher, Miss Honey (Maeve Roberts), takes an interest in Matilda and seeks to have her moved to the ‘top’ class. Miss Truchbull will have none of it. She smells rebellion and soon the children she calls revolting may do just that.

Kelly’s book and Minchin’s music honor the macabre spirit of Dahl’s writing, and co-directors Aimée Guillot and Olivia Cowell show firm hands in steering this massive show. A stronger hand is needed at the sound board, though, as microphones were repeatedly brought in late – a real problem with a musical. Other technical work is strong with nice set design and shadow-screen work, and the kids look great in their school uniforms.

Eleven-year-old Miss Passaris is an absolute delight as the steadfast little girl coming into her own and the rest of the cast all get moments to shine.

It’s a fun family show but parents might want to watch their hats.

Especially those parents in the theatre who did their best to out-Dahl Dahl with their boorish behavior.  Apparently, the standard audience directive that no photography of any kind is allowed at a show doesn’t apply to someone who feels the need to record every entrance and exit of little Billy or Susie. Heaven forbid they should actually watch their child with their eyes instead of on a four-inch glowing screen that distracts every audience member around them.

Calling Miss Trunchbull… 

Rating (out of 5): ★★★★

‘Matilda the Musical’ runs through November 17 at the Napa Valley College Performing Arts Center, 2277 Napa Vallejo Hwy, Napa. Friday, 7:00pm; Saturday & Sunday, 2pm. $5–$25. 707.256.7500. performingartsnapavalley.org.

Photos by Shelly Hanan.

This review originally appeared in an edited version in the North Bay Bohemian.

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